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May 2012

Ancient Romans were hot

BathsEven on the most sweltering day of the year so far, the heat in the Roman baths at Carnuntum was blasting. 

No one was taking a sauna, however; at least, not on purpose. These baths are open to the public not for bathing but for admiring and learning. They are part of an archaeological park now built at the ruins of the Roman settlement of Carnuntum outside of Vienna, Austria. Based on research and excavation, as well as some guesswork, experimental archaeologists have recreated many elements of the original settlement; in addition to the public baths, there is a mansion and a citizen's house.

Among the hardest of the archaeologists' tasks was recreating the "hypocaust" heating system. In the baths, as well as in many of the homes and other buildings, the heat did not come from a fireplace but instead from fires built in a small area under the floors. The smoke was channeled up through columns and walls, until it finally came out of small flues on the roofs. 

HeatinginactionThis system was expensive and labor-intensive, but I could immediately see the attraction: There were no hot spots or cold spots -- just a wrap-around warmth that felt natural, not artificial. Although there was a wood fire burning underfoot, there was no smoke, and the brights white walls were not darkened by soot.

The first, enormous room in the baths was apparently used for all sorts of social and business activities, such as writing letters. I broke out in a light sweat there, but I could imagine staying all day, especially in the winter. It would certainly be luxurious to sit there with a computer, working on edits for a story.

Further in, the rooms got progressively hotter; I didn't last in the final room for long. These rooms also had water of increasingly warm temperatures. Indeed, the arrangement was not so different from the public baths in Vienna today.

FloorheatingActually, nothing much in the Carnuntum archaeological park was very different from the way we live today. I wouldn't want to cook in their kitchens, but I wouldn't mind sleeping in their bedrooms, sitting on their toilets, relaxing in their baths, or eating at their snack bars. It made me think about other, less pleasant, similarities as well: for example, our lust for war and bloody entertainment, our divisions between the haves and have-nots.

Excavations continue at Carnuntum. I'm eager to see what they uncover next.